There's still life in Kingdom's old legs
Every time ageing sprint champion Sacred Kingdom fails to fire, talk of retirement grows louder, but a freshen up and return to what is now his best trip can see him give weight to a sub-par field and win his 18th race in the Bauhinia Sprint Trophy.
Sacred Kingdom's last three runs have been the worst of a stellar 32-start career, which has reaped HK$45.8 million and captured him the last four Sprinter of the Year crowns.
While it is clear the eight-year-old is on the decline, and a lush New Zealand paddock may be beckoning, his class and fighting qualities should still make him a serious threat when saved for selected strikes at 1,000m.
There have been excuses at two of his last three starts, and perhaps we are unfairly holding Scared Kingdom up to his own lofty standards when describing him as disappointing of late. In the two 1,200m runs, the horse has jumped from wide gates against the top tier of horses and was trapped deep, and two starts back he was only a half-a-length away in fifth behind Eagle Regiment in the Group One Centenary Sprint Cup.
That might not be the 'Sacred of old', but it's not bad form on paper, especially for what is a massive drop in class over a trip the horse loves.
Trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fai has vowed to keep Sacred Kingdom to the Sha Tin straight, where he is an impeccable eight from 13 record, and he has lightened the training load on his horse in an effort to have him feeling good. His lead-up trial showed an improved demeanour as he bounced along in front for Gerald Mosse.
Nearly half of the 11-horse field aren't suited by the trip and either need the run or ratings relief, so one concern for Mosse from gate five will be trying to find a horse with enough speed to take him into the race.
The logical candidate to lead is Horse Galore, jumping from seven, he should cut out the running and provide Mosse the cover he would prefer. Sacred Kingdom hasn't won for well over a year and his rating has dropped from an equal career-high 133, to a 41/2-year low of 122 for this race, which means he lumps the equal top weight of 133 pounds.
He most recently raced over handicap conditions with the same impost when runner-up in the Sha Tin Sprint Trophy, conceding a massive 12 pounds to the then-unbeaten Entrapment.
The biggest danger at the weights is California Choice (Matthew Chadwick), who gets 20 pounds off the champion. Maybe the term 'straight-track specialist' is a misnomer for California Choice, for while he certainly appreciates the shorter trip, especially without a bend, it is because of his severe throat problems. He has been described by his riders as 'doing it one breath'.
Barrier two is a challenge for Chadwick. He will try to track across from the middle but at risk of being stranded and doing the chasing, as he was last start when third in Class Two behind Go Baby Go and Sir Eagles.
That is decent form, but this is a big jump in class for California Choice, not only does he face a legend in Sacred Kingdom, but Danny Shum Chap-shing's five-year-old Little Bridge, who carries the number one cloth.
Little Bridge (Zac Purton) is undoubtedly in the elite band of sprinters ability-wise, but has raced like a tired horse since capturing the Jockey Club Sprint in November and there's a query over his suitability at the distance.
Shum has given his horse a major let-up, with plenty of swimming his chosen remedy for the flatness, and he comes in off an easy 1,200m dirt trial last week. Shum has also taken the blinkers off, which failed to sharpen the gelding last start.
While Little Bridge has what looks like a great track and distance record of four wins from six tries up the straight, it is a touch misleading as the victories were gathered as the Private Purchase Griffin charged through the grades.
The 1,000m straight wins were on debut in Class Four, followed by two in Class Three and then another in Class One, but when he has been matched against the big boys at the trip, he has found it too sharp.
Let Me Fight (Brett Prebble) has the class to compete - he will start short in the market - and will no doubt be among the leading group, but has developed a reputation for 'laying down' in a tight finish.